Professional Sports

SPORTS DIGEST: Lakers land LeBron James, others in NBA free agency

By Don Wanlass

Staff Writer

That was quick. And relatively painless.

LeBron James is a Los Angeles Laker and all is well in the world of professional basketball in Los Angeles. Maybe. Maybe not.

James agreed to a four-year maximum deal with the Lakers July 1, which can’t be officially announced until July 6 under the weird rules of the National Basketball Association.

In the aftermath of the James signing, the Lakers relinquished their rights to Julius Randle (who subsequently signed with New Orleans) and signed point guard Rajon Rondo, swingman Lance Stephenson and center Javale McGee. So long salary cap space and good luck with those three, coach Luke Walton.

James is a difference-maker, the best player on the planet. With him, the Lakers are a playoff team. If Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball continue to develop, the Lakers could turn into a team that contends for the conference finals.

But Rondo, Stephenson and McGee may cause more headaches for Walton than they will help the Lakers win games.

Rondo is a pass-first point guard who will compete for playing minutes with Ball. Rondo was not a happy camper in his early days with the Celtics when he had Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett as teammates and has continued to be a lousy teammate as he has bounced around the league. This will be his sixth team in the last six years.

Unless he is playing 30 minutes a night, he probably will be an unhappy camper with the Lakers, too.

Stephenson appeared to be headed on a path to stardom with the Indiana Pacers in 2013-14 when he averaged 13.8 points and more than seven rebounds a game in the regular season and then famously got under James’ skin in a playoff series that featured him blowing in James’ ear before a crucial free throw.

But Stephenson has bounced around the league since then, playing for six different teams before returning to the Pacers last year.

He will probably be a role player off the bench, provided he doesn’t blow in James’ ear anymore.

McVale is another player who has bounced around the league. A first-round pick with the Washington Wizards (18th overall) in the 2008 draft, he has played on six teams in 11 seasons with two stops each in Toronto and Denver.

He has good basketball genes, being the son of Pamela McGee who starred at USC in the 1980s with twin sister Paula, Cheryl Miller and Cynthia Cooper, but he has only averaged more than 10 points a game in two of 11 seasons.

He won a title with the Warriors this past season, but he only played an average of 9.5 minutes a game, averaging 4.8 points and 2.6 rebounds.

Walton gets to figure out how to meld these new players with returning players Ingram, Kuzma, Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (who resigned with the Lakers) and Josh Hart, as well as first-round draft choice Moe Wagner.

Right now, the Lakers look like a team that will fight to get into the playoffs. If the young players mature, the Lakers should play in the postseason for the first time since 2013.

How far they go remains to be seen.

The Warriors, who signed center DeMarcus Cousins July 2, just got better and the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder also will be among the top teams in the West.

The San Antonio Spurs have to decide what to do with Kawhi Leonard before we can rank them anywhere and New Orleans will be improved with the addition of Randle.

The Lakers probably will be in the second tier of Western Conference playoff teams, waiting for another superstar to join James next summer.

If nothing else, the balance of power has been restored in Los Angeles. The Lakers figure to be in the playoffs. And the Clippers probably will be on the outside looking in.

FAREWELL, DeANDRE: There was no one left to try to talk DeAndre Jordan into staying with the Clippers this time.

Three years ago, coach Doc Rivers and teammates Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and J.J. Reddick flew to Houston to talk Jordan out of signing with the Dallas Mavericks.

This year, only Rivers was left and he didn’t bother to talk Jordan out of signing a one-year contract with the Mavericks that will pay Jordan about $24 million next year.

That’s a lot of money to pay someone who has as little offensive skills as Jordan has. Jordan has always been a good rebounder and defender, but at 29 and with 10 years in the league, those skills are starting to go.

The Clippers are going to have to rally around sixth man Lou Williams and forward Tobias Harris and a roster that isn’t likely to make Doc Rivers stick around as coach, especially now that his son is no longer on the team. It looks like the Clippers are back in rebuilding mode.

WORLD CUP FEVER: Have you caught the fever yet? More and more people are waking up early to follow soccer from Russia as the World Cup moves into the quarter-final round. Imagine how many would be watching if the U.S. team had qualified.

The popularity of soccer continues to grow as people who played it as youngsters grow up and have kids of their own who are playing the sport. Also, Fox does a marvelous job of overhyping the games so much that you want to watch.

Then there are the sports bars that are opening early with drinks and food specials designed to bring in the crowds.

At my favorite neighborhood sports bar, you would have thought the NFL was back July 1, except the place was packed at 8 a.m., not 10 a.m.

You can mark my words, when the World Cup comes to North America in 2026 — the U.S., Canada and Mexico will be the hosts — soccer will have surpassed hockey in popularity among team sports in this country.

Dodger left fielder Matt Kemp is reminding fans of 2011 when he almost won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award. Kemp is hitting .323 with 15 home runs and 55 runs batted in and should start for the National league in the All Star Game July 16.
(Photo by Nick Koza)

IT’S 2011 AGAIN: In 2011, Matt Kemp was one of the best, if not the best, players in baseball.

He hit .324 with 39 home runs, 126 runs batted in and scored 115 runs.

Somehow, the baseball writers voted Ryan Braun the National League most valuable player, which made the writers look bad when Braun tested for positive for steroids in the offseason.

Kemp spent much of the next two seasons injured and when his numbers dropped to .287, 25 homers and 89 RBI in 2014, the Dodgers shipped him to San Diego for Yasmani Grandal the next offseason.

Last year, Kemp bounced to Atlanta, where he hit .276 with 19 homers and 64 RBI. So it was a surprise this past offseason when the Dodgers reacquired him in a trade that saw the Braves get aging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and pitchers Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir.

The Dodgers front office admitted the trade was a salary dump and said that Kemp probably wouldn’t be on the roster when the season opened in April.

Kemp surprised everyone by dropping at least 40 pounds on the offseason and reported to spring training looking like he looked in 2011. The Dodgers couldn’t trade him and Kemp opened the season in left field.

Now, he figures to start in left field in the All Star Game July 16.

In the first two games of July he went 8-for-9 with 8 RBI and is now hitting .323 with 15 homers and 55 RBI at the season’s halfway point.

Those are MVP-type numbers and Kemp is playing like the kid with unlimited potential he showed when he arrived on the scene in 2006. And the Dodgers are only a game and a half out of first.

It bodes well for the second half of the season.